Recognizing the need to expand education opportunities for Black students, the National Black Caucus of State Legislatures (NBCSL) recently passed a policy resolution on public school open enrollment. The resolution calls on state legislators to “examine policies that improve educational achievement by providing additional options for students in their state to enroll in public schools and educational programs throughout the state without regard to the student’s residence.”
Public school open enrollment, or sometimes referred to as “public school transfer” allows parents to select schools outside of their designated neighborhood. Today, forty-three states have laws allowing students to choose schools outside of their assigned public school, but within their local school district. Twenty-seven states allow students to expand their choices into other school districts within their respective states.
Public school open enrollment is an area in which policymakers can make a big difference. It can dramatically improve education outcomes for Black children left behind by deeply systemic failings in our public schools. Black children—just like any other group of children—deserve equal access to public schools that are equitably funded and give students paths to succeed.
Too often Black students have been forced into schools that are failing, or that lack resources and programs that parents want for their children. Black families should be empowered with alternative options for their children and not constrained based on their geographic location or socioeconomic circumstances.
Open enrollment can also help spark innovation among districts and incentive them to offer top level academic programs, to better allocate and utilize resources and funding, and raise their commitment to serving diverse communities – a core value of public education.
Credit NBCSL for taking a firm position on this issue. In announcing the adoption of the resolution, NBCSL noted the important role public school open enrollment has played in dismantling the historical injustice of “redlining,” which segregated communities and created educational inequities that continue to disproportionately impact African American families.
What is redlining? In a powerful video for Unite For A Better Education, Derrell Bradford, President of 50CAN, details the origins of redlining in the 1930s, and the nexus between home ownership and public schools. Predominantly Black neighborhoods were left unsupported by federal housing programs resulting in lower property values and less funding for their schools. The red lines drawn on federal housing maps around predominately Black neighborhoods mirror many school district boundaries today.
The result is a decades long history of poor performing public schools where minority youth are required to attend. Black, Latino and Native/Indigenous students today have lower literacy rates, lower rates of graduation, and lower rates of college entrance and completion. And according to the Education Trust “... [a]cross the country, districts with the most Black, Latino, and Native students receive substantially less state and local revenue - as much as $2,700 per student - less than districts with the fewest students of color. In a district with 5,000 students, this means $13.5 million in missing resources.”
The systemic inequities in education access and achievement for Black children has led to higher rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration.
We cannot lose another generation of Black children and, as a result, relegate Black families and Black communities to perpetual economic injustice due to the legacy of educational injustice. No longer should Black children’s futures be tied to the segregation policies of the past. They deserve the same freedom and educational opportunities afforded to those living in the most privileged communities.
There are many things we can and should do to improve public education. But if state lawmakers are serious about moving public education to a more fair and equitable future, then let them first commit to end policies that assign kids to schools based solely on their home addresses. Lawmakers in all states should embrace public school open enrollment.
Angela Williams is Senior Director of External Affairs at Stride, Inc. and a former member of the Colorado State Legislature.